Archive for May, 2014

The Auld Game Design Cupboard

As we’re moving house soon, I’ve had to clear out the over-stuffed game designs cupboard. A bit of nostalgia, a bit of catharsis, maybe a bit of frustration.

Result: 2 large boxes dating back to 1968 for the games room in the new house. 1 large box (equivalent) into the skip. A small box of old play test copies for Tony’s nostalgia cupboard.

“Orca” and “Mission Command” designs retained in the meantime, so they can be worked upon!

Mission accomplished.

Paras in Normandy: A scenario for Mission Command, a WW2 simulation wargame

This is a rather late report of a session I did at the Conference of Wargamers last July.

On Sunday morning I ran Mission Command, requiring a double-slot. Those brave enough for a complex WW2 game early on the final day were John Salt and Rob Doel, and thanks too to Phil Barker for stalwart ‘observer status’ in the first half. It was a lively session with many a divergent conversation into the art of code names, artillery doctrine, and even French philosophy (particular thanks to John!). I learned much in many unexpected (and some expected) directions. From my point of view at least, the game worked, which was a relief, as I’m always afraid of a bomb in such august (or at least July) company.

Mission Command is a currently unfinished joint design between myself and Pete Connew, both frequenters of the Frome, Somerset based “Abbey Wood Irregulars” group (named after the MoD’s procurement centre at Filton in Bristol). We’ve been developing the rules for the past … 7 years according to my archive files. The stimulus to designing Mission Command was the group’s dissatisfaction with Cross Fire, Rapid Fire, Panzergrenadier and other available rules, as these didn’t seem to satisfy our search for something a bit more realistic than the conventional ‘hollywood wargaming’ approach to WW2 from commercial rule sets. We like it gritty! Pete and I initially returned to Phil’s 1973 WGRG “1925 to 1950” rules, which we used as a philosophical starting point. Naturally we then set about fiddling with the scale, sequence of play and rule details until we took the obvious point and decided to write our own rules from scratch. Mission Command was born!

As an introduction, here’s the intro from the current (again, unfinished) players handbook:

“Our distinctive approach with Mission Command is to provide a model that attempts to reflect doctrine, particularly in command, control and communications, and to enable players to integrate the various types of troops in an historical fashion. With Mission Command, if you’re handling a German Panzer Division, it will be a different experience from handling an equivalent Soviet unit. This approach places these rules at the simulation side of the simulation versus game spectrum.
A Mission Command game is founded on realistic, historically accurate or pseudo-historical scenarios that present background information and occasionally some pre-game activity. The game itself is run by one or two umpires, who will supervise and facilitate the game for two teams of players. In very large games each side may be divided up into smaller command teams.
In Mission Command, the exercise of command, control and communications is not as abstracted as in most modern wargames – there are no command dice, no PIPs and no artificial ‘fog of war’ mechanisms. Each command of company level or above has to be given orders at the start of the game which can be modified later, but orders are brief. Communications and changes of orders are carried out by command elements, but as units are restricted by the necessities of combat, players will find that they have to make difficult choices about what they do during combat. Fog of war, imperfect information and sometimes confusion emerge naturally from the interactions of players attempting to carry out combat activities in accordance with doctrinal restrictions and complicated tactical situations.
Our normal ground scale is 1mm = 2 metres. We use 15mm miniatures. Each human figure represents about 10 real men, each vehicle model from 3 to 5 actual vehicles. We have found that with reasonably speedy play, real time and game time are approximately equal over the course of a whole scenario.”

I guess that we’re a little unusual in writing rules for an umpired game. This was a deliberate design decision, particularly as we’re not expecting [i]Mission Command[/i] tournaments, but ‘serious fun’ play. Not ignoring playability, but not compromising so much that we throw out the baby with the bath water. We also decided, or more properly, it emerged that, we would present tactical / operational scenarios for player teams from 1 to 10 per side, with a suitable proportion of umpires. Games last from an evening up to a couple of days. The smallest is our introductory scenario, similar to the one designed for CoW, the largest is our proposed 2-day game for 2015 on the whole of the 6 Airborne Division’s operations on D-Day. Mostly we operate with teams of 3 or 4 in charge of a brigade-sized group and a scenario lasts a day.

I’ve found that an introductory game can be run with a battalion of friendlies attacking an umpire-operated small defensive force over a period of two to three hours, including explanations. For CoW we had a scenario presenting an early June 1944 probe forward by a British Parachute Battalion to secure positions as far forward as possible without risking being cut off, so that the Allied beach-head could be deepened. The opposition consisted of small elements of 21 Panzer Division, and the Brits were run very ably by John and Rob, more or less split right (west) and left (east). I gave them a standard briefing covering mission, own forces, terrain and enemy forces. They had copies of a sketch map of the terrain as an aid to planning, and John’s array of suitable code names for fire zones.


Figure 1: playing area (about 2.5km x 1.5km), British advance from right to left.

Terrain was designed to supply variety, so that the players could experience many different circumstances in a short period of time. Own forces were 12th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, reinforced by B Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, a battery of 6pdr AT guns and 2 batteries of pack howitzers. Figure scale is 1 man model equals about 10 men, 1 vehicle or heavy weapon model equals 3 to 5 real ones. This makes the Para Battalion about 80 to 90 infantry figures, based into 26 elements, some large, some small, supported by 4 tank models, 2 AT guns and 4 pack howitzers.
The smallest group that is given orders in Mission Command is the company, so this force was 8 commanded groups, enough for 2 players to handle comfortably. Also these paras are elite, so they tend to be gung ho and immune to sudden panics. As this was an umpired game with experienced wargamer players, I was in the happy position of letting them get on with it and chipping in with rules explanations (and Germans) as and when required.

The objective was to take the southern-most ridge by game end. The British attack was a fairly conventional ‘2-up, 1-in-reserve’ with tanks supporting by spraying likely looking positions with MG fire. Artillery and mortar fire was kept on-call for responding to known German positions and the team designated some fire zones throughout the depth of the playing area. The stream was fordable, but required bog checks, so the tanks tried to avoid crossing the streams. It seemed obvious that the Germans would have occupied the farm buildings in the eastern half, so Rob made a cautious advance in that direction, while John’s lads advanced along the western side across the various hedgelines towards the area of woods, again likely to conceal Germans.

Spotting in Mission Command does not involve dice rolls. It involves getting close enough to see stuff, which, if it fires at you, is rather easier to spot. John’s paras spotted the enemy in the dense woods through the expediency of being shot at from close range. Paras being paras, they reacted with some aggression despite casualties, and a firefight from hedge to woods ensued. A further company of paras worked around the western flank of the wooded area, while the British artillery and mortars pounded the woods. Mission Command uses deviation dice for predicted fire and friendly fire incidents do happen, but in this game, the British FOOs were deadly (not one roll missed, if I recall correctly), and the Germans in this forward position were soon in flight. Some fled in a number of leSPW U304(f) (the French light vehicle converted by Major Becker into an armoured half-track).

On the eastern side Rob’s boys had had an easy time of it. No Germans were encountered until comparatively late in the game, so Rob’s forces were generally giving flank support to John. Rob’s advance would be the decisive one eventually, as the weaker German fire on this area was unable to prevent their positions from being outflanked by upstream (south) manoeuvres.

Having cleared the woods successfully, the paras pushed on across the large open field on the western side of the woods, heading for the rough ground before the final ridge. Another feature of Mission Command is the efficacy of opportunity fire, carried out during the opponent’s bound. Troops in ‘overwatch’ position can use opp fire and shoot twice to reflect greater effectiveness of planned surprise fire. As the Germans at the final hedge opened up on the advancing paras, so did the concealed German group from the western edge of the board, unsought and undetected by the paras. The open field was the primary killing ground set up by the Germans, and mortar fire also descended on the luckless paras. The paras recoiled into the recently cleared woods to take cover, though no doubt the regimental history will make a virtue of necessity. They were not, however, forced to retreat further, and once in cover John was able to spend a turn or two to sort them out in relation to the new threat.

Quite sensibly John and Rob decided to make an example of the Germans in front of them, while parrying the flanking force. Mission Command requires communications and changes of orders to switch fire zones, to alter objectives, and to bring in extra fire power, so there was pause while the paratroopers leaders sorted out their new lines and prepared to call in the artillery. Germans being Germans, they launched an immediate counter-attack using the flanking force. It’s worth noting that enemy infantry advancing within 100 metres has a great effect on morale checks of the defending group, so this tactic is a useful one. Without a flinch the paras beat them back. In the event this counter-attack was only able to cover the German withdrawal to their main position on the southern most ridge, so that when the artillery, tank and mortar fire came in on the located hedge position, it was only very lightly held.

With Rob’s tanks and infantry now about to cross the southern end of the stream in the face of only sporadic machine gun fire, the main position was effectively outflanked, and further withdrawal by the Germans was inevitable. The remaining British advance was only ‘mostly cautious’ however, because they had the feeling the Germans were on the run, and a couple of tanks were lost to some final shots by German self-propelled AT guns. This was off-set by a well-planned plastering of the ridge that wrecked the lightly armoured stuff the Germans had left. At the end of the game the Germans had been seen off with considerable loss, though the paras had taken pretty much equivalent losses. German vehicle losses were heavy, and of course, largely irreplaceable.

Having played this scenario a few times now, I reckon that the British players at CoW put up a very professional and highly creditable performance, as one might expect. The scenario is intended to provide some surprises but not a major risk that the British will lose – it’s an intro game after all. Having said that, the players controlled the situation very well, made excellent use of their available fire power and kept their troops well on top as the picture emerged. John and Rob both played the role of aggressive paratroopers with skill and aplomb. From comments during and afterwards, I was encouraged that the players – and the audience – had an enjoyable time with Mission Command.

For drafty rules and such: